Let go and be free

Thomas Larcher on his new piano concerto

Composer Thomas Larcher
(Photo: Richard Haughton)

Composer Thomas Larcher has crossed boundaries several times in his works for piano: he initially moved away from the standard piano sound, using prepared instruments and other experiments, then later returned to the instrument’s original character. On 2 December, our programme includes the German premiere of his new piano concerto with Semyon Bychkov and Kirill Gerstein. Before the concert, we spoke to him about his new work.

What attracts you to the form of the piano concerto?

The piano is closely interwoven with my history.  As a pianist, I know the repertoire. I had a certain reluctance to compose for the piano because every idea I came up with seemed familiar, as if I had heard them all before. So at first I wrote for prepared piano to avoid the “clichéd piano sound”. I wanted to create a new instrument to counteract this being trapped in the repertoire. That was how Böse Zellen for piano and orchestra came about. Then I didn’t play the piano much for years. The classical repertoire moved more into the background in my mind and was overlaid by many layers of my own writing. This gave me the freedom to return to the original sound of the piano.

Where did the inspiration for your current piece come from?

The idea came from Matthias Naske and Rico Gulda from the Wiener Konzerthaus with Semyon Bychkov. They talked about it after a concert and called me straight away at half past eleven at night. When I’m writing, it’s good for me not to be too concrete at the beginning. I don’t want to be given too many guidelines, but rather retain a freedom and openness. You can feel this freedom in this piano concerto, in finding your way into this piece, which is cautious and tentative and only finds and manifests itself over time.

You speak of freedom when composing. Did you have any doubts during the creation process?

As a pianist, you are afraid of piano clichés. This leads to mountains of discarded paper. At the same time, I approach other instruments much more naively. I learned that especially from the pieces written for me by non-pianists. When you write for an instrument you don’t know, you have a certain idea of that instrument in your head. It is more difficult to assess what is feasible and you only understand the instrument superficially. But I think you only really develop a relationship with an instrument if you study it in depth. There are things – feelings, instincts, movements – that are difficult to convey to someone else.

And how do you deal with these doubts?

When you know the repertoire, you lose a certain impartiality. You know the associated clichés, the history and everything that goes with it. I have to get that impartiality back when I write for piano. You can dissect every bar and say: “That already exists”. Incidentally, that applies just as much to new music. Basically, we have exhausted everything musically. But by interweaving it with our individual personalities, our experiences, our whole lives, music gains something unique and new. I was able to keep this belief.

To what extent did Kirill Gerstein's playing also inspire you?

Working with him was actually very inspiring. I feel a great freedom in writing when I know there are few limitations and many possibilities. Kirill Gerstein asked me – and I understand this well – to stick to the keys and not to include any actions that would require him, for example, to reach into the piano and play the strings or something similar. I didn’t quite manage it, because you can only make certain musical layers clear through different sounds. But I did mostly.

What should you pay attention to when you hear the piece for the first time?

Something that the composer should also pay attention to: an emptiness, that you have a free space within yourself before the piece can be heard. This perception requires an openness. We are influenced by our environment and our daily acoustic surroundings. You sometimes feel all the clichés, the ideas, the whole history of music behind you. You should let go of these expectations in order to be free when listening.

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